The February sales charts revealed that Image Comics has a new hit on their hands, Nick Spencer’s Morning Glories. The sales numbers aren’t so high that Morning Glories would be considered a hit if it had been published by one of the big two companies, Marvel or DC. But it’s a very respectable number for a creator-owned title from one of the mid major publishers. More importantly, Morning Glories defied typical sales trends: its sales have gone up. The seventh issue sold more issues than the sixth or the first.
Morning Glories’ gains primarily occurred in two months. The first was in October 2010 with the third issue. That issue saw a month-to-month increase of 36%. That increase was made possible because, on the one hand, Image had published second printings of the first and second issues allowing readers to catch up and, on the other hand, because retailers were now able to base their orders on actual demand.
This increase isn’t all that revealing. It is certainly good news for Image, Nick Spencer and Morning Glories. It’s nice to have a hit on their hands. It’s nice to have fan interest create a demand for multiple printings. But any company would have done the same thing. If their title sells out quickly, they put out a second printing. Marvel did this with multiple issues of Fantastic Four’s “Three” storyline and DC recently produced a second printing of Scott Snyder’s first issue of Detective Comics.
The second significant increase for Morning Glories came with the seventh issue. For many reasons, it shouldn’t have happened. Retailers had already been able to adjust their orders up with issues three and four. More recently, with issues five and six, the title had fallen into the typical slow decline. Yet issue seven gained several hundred readers and 2.2% in sales over issue six. Again, there are a couple of factors involved. The seventh issue was the start of a new story arc. Plus, a trade paperback came out between the sixth and seventh issues.
That latter factor shouldn’t be ignored. It is notable that the trade sold well on its own- it was the second-best selling trade for the month of February. It is also notable that the first issue after the trade sold better than the one before it. The presence of the trade allowed readers to catch up on the first story before joining the second. In other words, the publication of the trade paperback helped single-issue sales.
Conventional wisdom says that single issues and trade paperbacks are in competition with each other. But it’s not true. The formats are actually complementary.
Morning Glories illustrates that point perfectly. It was a hit series already based on single issues. It had sell-outs and multiple printings and increased sales. That buzz translated into great sales for the first trade paperback. The first trade did even better comparatively than the single issues. It finished second for the month and beat out better-selling titles from the big two like Superman and Astonishing X-Men. The single-issue sales didn’t take away from the trade paperback. Instead, they set the table for the trade.
Remarkably, the trade did the same thing for the single issues. The solicitation for the trade didn’t take away from single-issue sales. Morning Glories’ sales decline for issues five and six, when the trade had already been announced, was relatively gentle. Instead, the trade set the table for the single issues. While some readers will likely stick to the trades as their preferred format, others obviously used the timely release of the trade as an opportunity to join the ongoing series. Hot single-issue sales help sell the trade and timely trade paperbacks help sell the single issues.
Morning Glories isn’t the first title to follow this path. The same thing happened with many of the biggest hits of the last decade: Fables, Invincible, Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man. All of them saw significant sales increases of single issues shortly after trade paperbacks were released.
Unfortunately, too many publishers have subscribed to the theory that the two formats compete with each other. They delay publication of the trade paperback until it’s too late to gain any benefit from the buzz on the ongoing series. Even worse, they make it nearly impossible for readers to catch up to the regular series after buying the trades, virtually guaranteeing that no one will jump from one to the other. They are likely costing themselves sales.
DC is the biggest culprit. Part of the problem is the advent of the hardcover as an intermediate step between single issues and trade paperbacks. But the bigger problem is the long lag time between single issues and collected editions. DC’s apparent policy is to wait to solicit a hardcover until several months after the last issue was published. That way, the hardcover won’t “steal” any sales from the single issue. Then, DC waits a full year before publishing a trade paperback. That way, the hardcover will have the rack to itself for a year and the trade won’t “steal” any sales from the hardcover.
For example, the hardcover collecting Batman and Robin #1-6 was solicited several months after issue 6 hit the stands. Since books are solicited a couple of months in advance, that meant that the actual publication of the first hardcover coincided with the publication of issue 11. By the time the first trade came out, the ongoing series was on to issue 22 and a new creative team.
That publication model likely depressed sales on both ends. The buzz has moved on to something else by the time the book is published meaning that the sales on the book are not as good as they could have been otherwise. Plus the book came out so late that it isn’t in a position to help single-issue sales. Readers who enjoyed the first trade of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin aren’t likely to buy a dozen back issues in order to catch up or jump aboard the ongoing series under a different author.
Batman and Robin isn’t the only example. I was amused to see that the Flash Rebirth trade paperback came out in April, even as the regular series that it introduced was being canceled (the hardcover at least came out at the same time as Flash #1). And I was chagrined to see that iZombie was following the same track as Batman and Robin- the first trade came out in the same month as issue 11.
I’m disappointed in DC because I think they’re hurting their own books. American Vampire and iZombie have the chance to become the new Fables and Y: The Last Man. But it’s hard to see them gaining traction and increasing in sales when it’s so difficult for readers to catch up. Plus, DC should have all of the evidence they need. To wit, Flash saw its first sales increase in February with issue #9- the month after the first trade was released.
This isn’t to say that the model of timely trade paperbacks will turn every title into a hit. Some books simply aren’t going to catch on and an early trade is more likely to confirm that than to chance it. But this model gives those titles that are already hits to become bigger hits as buzz builds even greater buzz and sales transfer from one format to another.